By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Illustrations by Brooks Salzwedel|
The stories of Bill Smith and of a man whom, with all apologies for unoriginality, I will call John Doe, begin not in this bright age of sexual freedom, but beneath the shadow of decades gone by. Back then, from a distance at least, Bill Smith could have passed for a postwar California Everyman. Tall and blue-eyed, he grew up on the East Coast and joined the Air Force not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He returned from Europe in 1944, stopping at home just long enough to meet a girl and marry her before shipping off to a base in Northern California — en route, he thought, to the Pacific. But the war ended, and Smith and his bride found they preferred the West, so he enrolled in an aviation school just outside of Los Angeles. Eventually the pair settled in the suburbs, in Torrance. They had a daughter. Smith got a job in the defense industry. The sun shone almost every day. Smith was neck-deep in the New American Normal, except that he was gay.
This was of course no more unusual in the 1950s than it is today, but it was not something a man could afford to be open about. Social stigma aside, sex between men was not only deemed a sign of madness (the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a pathology until 1973), but it was also a crime. Even just kissing, dancing or holding hands in sight of a vice cop was enough to get a man dragged off to jail. What gay scene existed in those pre-Stonewall days was completely underground. "They had gay bars," Smith remembers, "but they were raided all the time. Often they would have vice squads in there undercover, and if you even put your arms around or hugged a guy, first thing you know, ‘You, you, you and you — you’re under arrest.’ And that was it." But desires have a way of getting their way. Smith had been involved with men before he married, and even had a lover for two years in the service. For his first few years out of the military, Smith says, "I kind of got away from the gay thing." After several years of marriage, though, Smith found himself cruising the bars. His wife, he now believes, knew all along — "She just didn’t want to accept it."
On the night of January 13, 1956, Smith dropped by the Borderline, a gay bar between Compton and South Gate. "I met a fellow there," he recalls, "and we got to talking. We went out to the car and pulled around a corner off the main street, and we were trying to set up a dinner engagement to get together and all that. We weren’t there a few minutes when all of a sudden the Sheriff pulled up."
Smith was, he says, "scared to death." Not only his family but his livelihood was in jeopardy — in 1956, homosexuals were little more welcome in the defense industry than communists. The two men were driven to the Sheriff’s station in Norwalk, where they were separated and questioned. Smith can laugh about it now: "All they were trying to do is find out if we were performing sexual acts, which we weren’t — then. I mean, we were planning on it for later." The police kept him in Norwalk for the night, and then transferred him to county jail, booked on a charge of "suspicion of sexual perversion." He spent a second night there in a cell reserved for gays. "I had to sleep on the floor there were so many of us," he remembers, but the atmosphere was congenial enough. In the morning his cellmates found him a comb and a razor so he could clean himself up for court, where he would ultimately plead guilty to a reduced charge of vagrancy. (At the time section 647(a) of the California penal code defined a vagrant as "every lewd or dissolute person." The statute was frequently used against gays. Just two slender parentheses differentiated it from section 647a, a now obsolete child-molestation statute.) The judge gave Smith two years of probation and a fine of $500. As part of his probation, he was required to see a psychologist, which he did, Smith says with a chuckle, until "after a few sessions, he started cruising me."
Aside from the residual fear and humiliation, and a further dent in an already troubled marriage, Smith’s ordeal, he thought, was over. "I tried to erase it all, like it never happened," Smith says. His wife performed a similar feat of repression. "It was never discussed," Smith says. "Over all those years, I kind of forgot about it." The Smiths stayed together until the late 1970s. They never divorced and, though they now live apart, remain close.
Today Bill Smith lives with a younger man named Dave in an upscale, gated trailer park somewhere in the Southern California desert — he would rather I didn’t tell you precisely where. Smith is 80 years old and, despite some recent health troubles, remains fit, sharp and charming. He wears a thin mustache and combs his white hair back with a Clark Kent curl in front. Smith had no cause to think of his arrest outside the Borderline for nearly five decades, until this past February, when he opened his mailbox and, he tells me, sitting in his kitchen, photos of his grandchildren propped on an end table a few feet away, he "just about came unglued."